KABUL, Afghanistan – Excitement builds in the queue forming behind the barbed-wire security fence outside Afghanistan’s first amusement park as children in bright clothes clutch their parents’ hands and hop from foot to foot in anticipation of the pleasures waiting behind the high concrete blast walls.
For the thousands of families who have visited Kabul’s City Park since it opened during a national religious holiday weekend in October, it is a rare escape from lives blighted by war, death and misery.
Squealing children hardly know where to look as they race through the gates. Inside, they find large friendly characters that look almost, but not quite, like Minnie Mouse and Tom the cat from Tom and Jerry – all dancing together and dispensing hugs.
Traditional fairground rides – including a Ferris wheel and bumper cars – attract the older kids, while a carousel, face painting and games keep younger children happy.
“It’s very nice, everything is very beautiful, the carousel horse ride is nice,” said 6-year-old Sadaf through a gap-toothed grin as she had her face decorated like a mouse.
Set at the foot of the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains, next to the filthy Kabul River and near a zoo famous only for its abused, one-eyed lion, City Park is one of few places residents of the Afghan capital can take their children for a relaxing day out.
The city of almost 6 million people is a virtual fortress. Major buildings are protected by concrete and barbed wire, roads are choked with traffic as former thoroughfares are blocked to prevent suicide bombers reaching potential targets like the Presidential Palace. Gun-toting security forces guard almost every street corner.
Afghanistan has been at war for more than 30 years, and while U.S. and NATO combat troops prepare to leave next month, the Taliban insurgency shows no sign of abating.
Few families in Kabul have been untouched by the violence, said Almas Qaseemi, the park’s deputy general manager. “The park is a place for entertainment, and there is not much of that in Afghanistan.”
“We have a great feeling when we see our people forget their sorrows for a few minutes and smile when they come here,” Qaseemi said.
Thousands come every day, he said, peaking on the weekly Friday holiday at close to 10,000.
The park is set on 10 hectares of land owned by the Kabul Municipal Government and leased for five years to a private company called Mufkora – which means “concept” in English.
Rahela Kohistani, the municipality’s cultural director, said that $1.5 million has been invested in the park with the municipal authority taking 26 per cent of profits and the rest going to Mufkora.
“So far we are happy, and it seems that people are happy, too,” she said.
For Ishfaq Ahmad Adeb, 20, who spends his days at City Park as Tom the cat, and 18-year-old Omid who plays Minnie Mouse, the children’s joy rubs off.
“When the children see me in this outfit, they really believe that Minnie Mouse has come to Kabul,” said Omid. “They laugh and try to shake hands with me, they really enjoy it.”